>> america tonight. tuesday through friday 10:00 eastern. only on al jazeera america. >> this is techknow, a show about innovations that can change lives. >> the science of fighting a wild fire. >> we're going to explore the intersection of hardware and humanity but we're doing it in a unique way. this is a show about science by scientists. tonight: trash. it's everywhere. >> what's the out put of this facility? >> landfills overflowing. >> it just smells so bad. >> but some of our trash ... ... could be recycled. >> why isn't it being done more? >> now techknow investigates: the problem with plastic. >> they throw in the street or throw it in the ocean. >> we have the technology...
>> i can't touch it? >> no you can't. >> so why don't we use it? >> so you don't know what happens to the plastics you recover? >> dr shini somara is a mechanical engineer. dr. crystal dilworth is a neuroscientist. >> we're standing by a pipe marked heated sludge. >> and i'm phil torres, i'm an entomologist. >> that's our team ... >> it smells very organic. >> now lets do some science. >> hey guys, welcome to techknow. i'm phil torres and today we are going to be talking trash and a ton of it. joining me with this trash talk dr. crystal dilworth, dr. shini somara. now first up the water bottle, by some estimates here in the u.s. we use 50 billion of these every year and myth number one is that this is going to be recycled. >> correct, actually it's probably not going to be recycled. a lot of water bottles that we
think are headed for recycling facilities end up in landfills and those landfills can have some really negative impacts on the surrounding communities. >> it's actually quite shocking that a material that is designed to be used over and over again actually only gets used once and what we've done is take a water bottle just like this and follow its journey after its been blue binned to see exactly what happens. >> the world is addicted to plastic. it was sold to us as the product of the future... >> plastic... plastic... plastic. >> this educational video from the 1940s celebrates the convenience of plastic. >> here they are in our homes, augmenting our comforts... >> back then it was a symbol of the modern times to come. 6-decades later, the reality is, the earth is choking on it.
according to the united states environmental protection agency, only 9 percent of plastic is making its way into the recycling stream. >> that's a people problem, they throw on the street, or throw it in the ocean, unfortunately that's a habit that has to be stopped. >> it's our addiction to single use plastic for fast food, storage and packaging convenience that's at the root of the problem. >> we're guilty!!! ah, and we should just admit it. >> dr. steven nutt is a professor of materials science at usc. he studies the physics and chemistry of materials like plastic. >> it seems to have been a material that was developed for convenience but we're now, you know, almost a hundred years later paying the price. >> if you look at the population as a whole, probably the majority have not yet realized the magnitude of the problem. >> and nothing symbolizes the problem like the omnipresent plastic water bottle.
americans consume water from about 50-billion bottles a year. made from what's called p-e-t, or polyethylene terephthalate... two monomers... ethylene glycol and purified terephthalic acid... are combined to create a polymer... resulting in a lightweight but strong material. >> why then does it last almost to infinity in a landfill? >> these essentially are the same type of bonds that hold together a diamond. >> if you're conscientious enough to throw a water bottle into a blue recycle bin, like we do here at techknow, then you probably think that water bottle is gonna be turned into another water bottle. but that may not necessarily be the case. techknow wanted to find out what happens next ... so we followed the water bottle.
>> this is the massive puente facility near los angeles california. located near a large metropolis, it can take a lot of trash... >> if you take a football field from post to post 10 feet high uh, fill it up with trash - about a third of that or a quarter of that comes over here every day. >> three thousand tons a day. this facility offers a glimpse into the world of single stream recycling, because all the recycled material it receives comes from a single source bin like this. convenient, because all recyclables end up in one basket but there's a price. >> you can't unscramble an egg. >> susan collins is a manufacturing engineer who heads up a non- profit recycling institute. >> once materials get mixed together too much, like glass shards ending up in paper, or plastic bottles ending up in the paper stream or aluminum cans
ending up in the plastic stream, all of that is detrimental to recycling. >> sorting seems to be a massive component. >> there are multiple compositions of plastic... when these different plastics are blended together then the recycling becomes difficult to impossible. >> that is exactly what's happening at the puente plant. that means a bottle won't be turned back into another bottle. but instead it will go on another journey, into the secondary plastic market. >> one of the myths is that once you place a water bottle in a blue recycle bin it can actually be made back into a water bottle again -- the technology is there, why isn't it being done more? >> i cant really speak to the industry of what happens after you know, the water bottle leaves our facility - we just make sure that the containers that come in here are recovered as much as possible. >> so you don't know what happens to the plastic that you
recover once you've given it to the broker? >> well no, but from what we understand there is a local market for that but for the most part a lot of the material is shipped overseas mostly to the asian pacific. >> in 2014, the secondary plastic market sent about half of california's plastic trash to china. because it's a mix of all the different types of plastics, it can only be melted down or repurposed, a process known as downcycling. >> it could be t-shirts, it could be teddy bear stuffing it could be carpets. >> cuz downcycled products end up on landfill, don't they eventually? >> ya they just take a longer trip before they eventually end up in a landfill. >> and there's another inherent problem with single stream recycling... >> half of the country has access to recycling, and the other half might have a drop off program that might be nearby or it might be 10 or 20 miles away... in the u.s. we're able to use about 5 to 7 percent recycled content in
p-e-t beverage bottles in the united states. the number in germany, is 25 to 35 percent. >> in the u-s, bottle bills are rare. california is only one of six states that places a redemption value on non-carbonated p-e-t bottles. >> why don't we have a national bottle bill, because it seems to be so successful? >> sure, it's purely for political reasons. >> but when plastic bottles are purchased in california, consumers pay anywhere from a nickel to a dime deposit on them at check out. >> we see about a million and a half customers a month. >> canadian based company replanet - with 700 locations in the u.s., offers a plastic buy back program. they're a sort of middle man in the plastics trade. they redeem bottles for deposit. >> the result is dramatic. the recycling rate in california is typically three times higher than that of the rest of the nation. >> here at this replanet sorting facility they process over two
million bottles a day.... packaging up the best quality p-e-t. these mountains of plastic are pressed... prepped and then bailed. among the buyers for this bailed p-e-t... ... is carbonlite a 220-thousand square foot plant, where they transform used plastic into material for new bottles. as a mechanical engineer, i feel like a kid in a candy store... >> it's very hot! >> you can't touch it... >> bails brought here are broken and the plastics are separated from any debris and then washed in hot water... >> our second stage washes it very clearly, separates the caps and labels from the p-e-t bottles. >> it's then separated into clear p-e-t... green p-e-t and non p-e-t...
the clear and colored p-e-t is ground into flakes... and washed again... heated... then melted. >> and then becomes pellets. >> it's called 1-to 1 or bottle to bottle recycling. the plastic from one bottle is used to make another. nothing ends up in landfill... they even recycle the labels and caps. nestle waters and pepsi's naked juice are among the companies heavily vested in 1-to-1. >> so if we get the recycling rates high enough in the u.s. it's very easy to have 100 percent recycled material for our use. >> if you keep something in closed loop, you're replacing virgin resources over and over and over again, so the math catches up with you in a pretty awesome way and is responsible for avoiding a whole bunch of environmental consequences. >> coming up, a controversial landfill. >> the whole milpitas is like a huge bathroom, you know, it so
>> if people only knew the problem that they were creating when they extolled the virtues of throwaway living. this is a monster in the creating right here. >> hello. >> hello. hi, my name is jennifer. do you know about the newby island dump... they want to expand it... have you experienced odors? >> oh constantly, for years. >> these neighbors are talking trash... as a group of milpitas california, residents go door to door to fight the expansion of the newby island landfill... located in the neighboring city of san jose. they hold weekly meetings... >> it stinks! >> and they host town halls... >> there is a significant odor that comes from the newby island facility. >> sometimes you know when i just go out and take a walk i just feel dizzy, and i feel like throwing up. >> the whole milpitas is like a
huge bathroom, you know, it just so smells so bad. >> milpitas, california... a sleepy bedroom community is the gateway to silicon valley. a bustling tech town of 70,000. many citizens here say the garbage is taking over and ruining their quality of life. >> i'm a real estate broker and years ago, very few people would ask about odor. now 100 percent of the people that are buyers within the community are asking about the odor. that is going to affect property values. >> newby island resource recovery park here in san jose is a landfill operated by republic services, the nation's second largest waste management company. it's been taking trash since 1930 and was scheduled to close in 2025. >> instead today, the city of san jose is not only planning to keep it open until 2041...they want to grow it from 150 feet above sea level to 245-feet...
increasing its capacity more than 15 million cubic yards. >> we failed and didn't stop this expansion, um, i want to move out of this area. >> americans create about 250 millions tons of trash a year. in 1988, there were about 8,000 landfills in america. two decades later, that number dropped to below 2,000, spurred on by environmental and health concerns, heavily populated areas started closing landfills and shipping trash to more remote regions. san francisco hauls its trash about 50 miles across the bay... new york city trash is trucked out of state... to new jersey, pennsylvania... even as far away as ohio virginia and south carolina. and until recently, america was doing a brisk business, selling its scrap to china... but now, even china is leery. >> time's have changed... the awareness of the public is
much greater about health issues now than it was when newby began. >> newby is one of the largest active landfills on the shores of san francisco bay. >> i don't think it should smell like this in america... >> the city of milpitas filed a lawsuit against san jose over environmental impacts caused by the landfill. the bay area air quality management district, which has received 2,000 newby landfill odor complaints has issued newby island five public nuisance violations related to odor issues. according to a district spokesman, they are still negotiating the fines. >> trash is a big business and unfortunately it's a smelly business too. >> don litchfield, the northern california environmental manager for republic services. >> the community itself seems to have some concerns about this site and the odor problem that they're experiencing. >> unfortunately we've been a little slow to address those concerns so we'd like to apologize to the community for that. >> here at the landfill we've had an odor mitigation plan that we've been working on for years.
>> we get a lot of fresh refuse that comes in every day and we have odor misting stations set up in strategic locations throughout the landfill that can mitigate some of the fresh odors. >> in addition, republic says it invested heavily in this state-of-the-art recycling facility to help divert landfill waste. >> all of the material that we accept, over a thousand tons a day from the bay area, in california, comes into this facility and we divert it from the landfill...so we process the material and remove everything that is recyclable. >> so what is the output of this facility? >> 200,000 tons a year are being diverted out of landfills... our output is 400 tons of paper, 30 tons of plastic, 90 tons of glass and 30 tons of metal every day. >> despite diverting nearly 50 percent of their annual waste, the landfill is still growing and that causes some to look toward another possible solution. in sweden, a country that boasts 33 incinerators, trash is burned to create fuel in what's known
as "waste to energy". about half of their waste is recycled, and the rest is burned. less than one percent goes to landfill. sweden is known as a world leader in waste-to-energy incinerators like this one which utilizes modern technology to capture and control emissions. san francisco authorities tell us, they have no plans to build an incinerator in the bay area. instead, they say, they plan to increase composting and to continue to ban what they call "bad designs". >> what is your hope for san francisco? >> what we're trying to do is really break that addiction to plastic water. >> san francisco is the first city in the country to ban the single use water bottle from city property. >> in the case of our ban on single use plastic water bottles, the goal here is to establish a marker, to lay it down in san francisco, to work with other cities to do the same. >> in the meantime, however, we're still a consume and dump nation. republic's landfill manager, augustin moreno says he wants
residents to know just one thing: >> as someone that works in trash for a living, and you hear the concerns of the citizens of milpitas, what do you have to say to them? >> this is not a dump, you know, you hear that word very often and for us, you know, we work here every day, it's not fair to call this a dump. this is a modern sanitary landfill ... we take pride of what we do here. >> these residents say they just wish they were doing it somewhere else. >> so it's not that i'm fighting for my backyard, i'm fighting for the entire bay area's backyard. nobody's backyard is going to be spared. >> coming up next... >> we're standing by a pipe that's labeled, heated sludge... >> for 6 months, the road outside the us embassy in yemen was closed... >> two car bombs exploded this morning... >> three days before the attack it was re-opened without warning. >> they would not have been able to get the car bombs to the front of the embassy. >> did yemeni officials
>> mountains of trash piled high as the eye can see at this landfill just outside san francisco. but inside this mass, scientists see potential. some of this waste is organic: about 40 percent of landfill waste nationwide is from food, that's waste that doesn't have to be there. but innovators are tackling that waste. a program that takes food from restaurants, vineyards and farms in the area ... turns that waste into energy. >> we're finding new ways to reuse what we used to call waste. >> right now, i'm at 90 percent of the waste recycling and composting. >> gabriella lozano owns a small cafe in san francisco's mission district. she composts everything. >> i'm a strong believer that i'm doing what i can, and the best that i can. >> what she's doing here on a small scale... is part of a much bigger picture. >> you look at what she's doing here in terms of diverting waste away from landfills and creating a recycling type of circuit here
with everything that happens at l's and that's what we have to look to. >> inspired by western europe, san francisco offers owners like lozano financial incentives to compost. >> a lot of these small business are actually doing it for economic reasons... it lowers their bill for recycling, their garbage bill over all... money is a way to motivate people. >> but it's not the only motivator... >> when the food waste is in the landfill it decomposes, and it generates methane gas and methane is a very potent greenhouse gas. >> john hake is a civil engineer who runs the resource recovery program in the east bay, where they combine solid food waste with liquid wastewater to create fuel. >> it has an odor! it smells very 'organic'. >> yes, that's the term we use to describe the smell. >> it's like a black gold ... >> black gold? >> the process works like this: food waste from throughout the bay area is trucked here to the east bay municipal utility
district, or east bay mud, a sewage treatment plant and a pioneer of green power. >> we're the first plant in north america to become energy neutral and ultimately energy positive... when we started the truck waste program, east bay mud produced about 40 percent of the energy we needed to run the plant, and that's pretty typical for a waste water treatment plant. today, we're at 130 percent of our demand and that allows us to sell that excess renewable energy to the port of oakland, our neighbors next door. >> i'm a little apprehensive we're standing by a pipe that's labeled heated sludge. >> the heated sludge is going into an anaerobic digester. >> a digester is like the human stomach, so organic material goes into the digester and in there it's biodegraded by bacteria and they feed on the solid material and that solid
material is being converted into biogas and that biogas is a great renewable energy source and it's a fuel that we use to run our engines and turbine to generate electricity. >> let me this get straight: i eat a bunch of food, and i take the energy and fuel that i can from that and then it goes into the sewer system and you collect that and you're giving it to bacteria that're turning it into energy. >> that's correct... >> each digester here is about two million gallons and we have 11 of them so that's 22 million gallons of capacity. >> east bay mud shared the technology and now other water treatment facilities in brooklyn, new york, and in california cities of marin thousand oaks, fresno and san diego are using it. >> most of us don't think about the waste whether it's flushing the toilet or throwing things in the garbage. it just kind of disappears and i think as a society we've been very successful at sort of
hiding where the waste goes and i think as time goes on and population grows and waste generation grows, then we've become more aware of waste generation and the things that we need to do to handle it. >> for me, i feel it's a great responsibility not to leave such a big impact in the city, and in the world for the next generation. >> so through all of this it's clear there is a problem out there with recycling, with way too much trash so what can we do as consumers? >> some people think it's an individual choice. we just need to get better at sorting our trash and sorting our recyclables and actually following through. others think that we need to be taking a legislative approach. i mean san francisco, they've banned water bottles on government property and maybe we can do more things like that. >> when i work in latin america, glass bottles are the norm there. that is what you use whenever you get a soda from a restaurant or something but the difference
there is you are expected to return that glass bottle to the person and they recycle it. lots of times they'll give you a quarter in return but if you don't return that glass bottle you are being very rude. it's like a societal norm that you are breaking. >> i think as consumers we need to be extremely mindful of not using plastic once so just try and increase the times you use packaging and then just make sure you trash it in a blue bin once you finish with it. >> when it comes to responsible use, i mean, also you think about whether or not you are putting it in the blue bin at all. i mean a lot of people just have this idea, i'm gonna throw it in the trash, i'm gonna throw it in this bin and then whatever it is is just going to disappear into the ether and then i'm absolved of all responsibility but it has to go somewhere, i mean conservation of mass if nothing else. >> it really did make me more aware of how much plastic i'm actually using, when i use a plastic straw or plastic cup. any of those things because it seems there are so many of them we just use them once and throw them away and that's the end of it. >> absolutely, there is nothing like standing at the open face of a landfill and going through
your head of like well i threw away that yogurt container and then i had a water bottle this morning and my cups probably in there and you really start to realize how much of this waste you generate in a day. >> i am sure you can see it and you can smell it. >> yes, it doesn't smell too great. >> well guys it was certainly a dirty job but an important one to tell so thank you for bringing it to us. that's it for now. be sure to check us out right here on techknow. >> dive deep into these stories and go behind the scenes at al jazeera dot com slash techknow. follow our expert contributors on twitter, facebook, instagram, google plus and more.
>> previously on hard earned >> i hate walking into the job because i know there's something going to be said. there's something going to be done. i work for a company that is a billion dollar company we doing all the leg work but we haven't seen any of the pay. >> ugh... i need a new job. maybe i should become a nun. do you think they need resumes to become a nun? and the only thing i can do is just sell, sell sell sell. but i never thought i'd have to go back to this.